After debuting lead single “Severed” and its accompanying music video last week, LA underground rapper Nocando has released his latest album of the same name. Focused around the emotional riptide of a dissolved relationship between himself and his long-time lover and partner in child-rearing, the former battle rap champ describes Severed as his most personal and vulnerable project to date. Released on his personal Hellfyre Club imprint, Severed tries to reconcile Nocando the unbeatable battle monster with James McCall, the down-to-earth dude from LA who just wants to recover from a love hangover.
Nocando spitting “I wish I could forgive and forget / You split my lip with a fist, you slit my wrist with a kiss,” on the opening stanza of “Salty” shows that he’s more than willing to not just open up, but to get all the messy details out on the table, along with the emotional cards that rappers have been noted for holding so close to their vests. He admits to being salty, vindictive, and sorry on the hook, but his pen remains as sharp as when he was eviscerating opponents with his freestyles. The production is melancholy, built around a lonely piano loop and an echoing, not-quite-Gothic vocal synth sample. The bridge picks up at the end, becoming the engine for his raps to become an unhinged, runaway-train rant, perfectly evoking the tempestuous emotional states of a man who’s been cut loose at set adrift from the emotional anchor of his longstanding relationship with a high school sweetheart.
“El Camino,” which dropped last September is packed to the gills with ruminations about “black lives matter,” emotional and physical abuse, racism, and white privilege. He snarks at infamous white guilt purveyor Macklemore, “white privilege is when people listen to your opinions for like nine minutes.” McCall uses the conceit of the Chevy El Camino that he never got to lament dreams deferred due to the above larger forces. Over a grunge-ish guitar sample on “Useless,” he trades verses with backpack rap staple Slug, of Minnesotan emo-rap duo Atmosphere, on the malaise that comes of being millennial-aged with few prospects and little to look forward to, slowly going berserk over the course of his bars.
He returns to his defiant, barrel-chested battle rap persona for the rolling “Villain.” A surprisingly groovy track for the subject matter, McCall shadowboxes with unnamed foes, with a verse that turns into his own personal take on I Am Legend. “You a fan, keep it real,” he tells the competition, feeling like the bad guy everybody is out to get thanks to his far-reaching reputation as the one to beat to earn that respect. He continues in the vein of slick wordplay and serpentine rhyme schemes on “Sick” with fellow West Coast underground staple Aceyalone, founder of the Project Blowed weekly event where McCall cut his teeth and honed his skills. With a horror movie backing beat, that sounds like it could have been produced by the Phantom Of The Opera with an MPC and a pipe organ, Acey, Tru, and Nocando flex back-and-forth quartets that reestablish them as the stalwart lyrical stewards of LA. Long before the city’s mainstream resurgence, these guys were practicing and battling in Leimert Park against some of the most genius freestylers around and it shows.
While Severed starts strong, it feels like the all the personal, vulnerable bits are front loaded, with “Severed,” “El Camino,” and “Salty” doing the majority of the heavy emotional lifting, and the remainder of the eleven songs finding him resorting to his comfort zone. His bars are witty, deliberate, and cerebral, but by the end of the album, you find yourself wanting to hit “repeat” mostly so you can go back and hear poignant excerpts like “I don’t wanna protest and picket / I see more change when the city’s in flames, you dig it?” Here he eloquently expresses the angst and righteous outrage of the citizens of a city who feel as though they’re under siege, until the only recourse feels like riots and looting.
He does more in a couplet to illustrate the mindset of desperate brown people and outsiders than a hundred pundits have done since Trayvon Martin was shot to death over a hoodie and a bag of candy, and “Salty” is the sort of genuine, emotional confessional that bigger names like Drake profess to, but generally avoid actually putting on their albums. Plus, the title track “Severed,” the song is relatable, incisive, and self-effacing; the game could use a lot more rap like this, especially with the level of talent and execution displayed by Nocando here. Here’s hoping his next project continues in this direction, because behind the battle rapper facade is a complicated, interesting human being who deserves to be heard.